I spoke to Simone Simons and Mark Jansen from Epica to discuss their new album due out in September, and also their festival, Epic Metalfest as well as touring and more.
You’ve got a new album coming out at the end of September – The Holographic Principle. Cam you tell us a bit about where the title came from?
Mark: On The Quantum Enigma we were writing about quantum physics and science in general and we had a feeling that we weren’t finished yet with the science and kept watching documentaries and reading books about this theory, The holographic principle, and it’s so fascinating that a lot of scientists are seriously considering this theory could be true, that the whole universe might be a hologram.
That sounds a lot like the plot of The Matrix.
Mark: Yes it does. Simone also wrote a lyric inspired by The Matrix.
Certainly these days there are a lot of people who don’t believe what they’re told by governments or the media and question everything. Does that come through in the lyrics?
Mark: “Divide and Conquer” is basically dealing about that topic. Indeed the government, the mainstream media, there are a lot of one-sided stories being released to the people, but when you talk with people from other countries they get completely different information, and we always have the feeling or the tendency to believe what the papers write in your own country, so Russians believe what the Russian papers are writing, we believe what our papers are writing, in China they believe what the Chinese papers are writing. In everything there is a bit of truth, but everything is also a coloured view – that’s unavoidable. You want to make people believe a certain thing and everybody feel at ease as well, but when you try to get the information from all these perspectives I think you get the best overview.
The album artwork is beautiful. Do you work with the same artist each time?
Simone: Since the classical conspiracy we’ve been working with Stefan Heilemann, he’s a really great artist that is really good at creating something special, something that really fits Epica. We tell him the ideas behind the lyrics, the title of the album, we tell him the colours in which we would like to dress up the cover and give him carte blance, and mostly he comes up with something right away that we love, sometimes we need to work on it a little bit more, but once he’s on the right track he comes up with spectacular artwork that we can integrate into our live shows, merchandise, website, posters, flyers, everything, it’s all connected.
I notice there’s a new logo this time with the snakes. Presumably we’ll be seeing that in the merchandise?
Simone: It’s going to be everywhere – except my forehead. We’ve already seen the other Epica logo as tattoos which is like an E with an inkstain around it and we’re predicting there might be some of the new one. It would be nice.
Mark: It comes from the “Universal death squad” song, the snake biting it’s own tail. It’s connected to the lyrics as well. Some people ask “Why a snake eating it’s tail, it doesn’t fit to Epica”, but we have always had connections to snakes since the first album and it’s clearly written in the lyrics, so once the album is released people can see the lyrics and will find easily where it is written.
“Universal death squad” is the first single and is coming out very soon.
It must be exciting and also nerve-wracking when you’re about to release a song, waiting to find out how people will react to it.
Simone: We know it. We’ve already shown it to press worldwide and the response has been great, especially once they’ve heard the full album. All the band members love this song so it was a given that this was going to be released first.
Often when bands come to release a single different members prefer different songs, so it’s a good sign when you all agree on the same song.
Simone: Then we know for sure. There are five songwriters in the band, all the guys, so when we had to make up a list of our favourite songs, it’s clear that the song you write lies near to your heart so you want to have it on the CD, but I didn’t write any songs, just vocal lines and lyrics, so I could have an objective look. The same with our producer – he was able to come up with a list of songs that would be on the record. We also asked the press before we made the actual list of songs on the CD as it is now, we asked which songs they liked and did they like the flow of things, and we finished the list of songs and the order after that.
So it sounds like you record more songs than end up on the album
Mark: We’ve recorded 18 songs, so 6 didn’t make it onto the album, and it was a very hard choice because we aimed for all these songs to be album quality songs, so we didn’t have to think about dropping the weakest tracks, but we just had to worry about picking the best flow for the album. So there are six songs that are good enough to be on the album but are not, so we have to find a way to release them We don’t want to have bonus tracks all over the place so we’ll try and keep them all together and make something special for the fans in the near future with them, but first the album…
This was your second album with Joost van den Broek.
Simone: Yes, Mark knows him the longest, together with Rob – he also knows him a long time. I knew him via After Forever, I thought he was a little geeky, he was nice, he’s always in good spirits. We’d been working with Sascha since the beginning so we felt at ease with him, it is a very intense, sometimes emotional process so you have to really click with the producer and the team around you. Joost keeps it really calm and he keeps an overview of the whole thing and he is guiding us in baby steps right the way through to the end product. He managed to make us all stay on schedule, no deadlines were passed…by us at least, and gets the best out of us. He’s like a musical centipede, so he was the man for the job. The Quantum enigma was a success and we like the team we’re in, so we wanted to continue on the same road.
With the last album you rehearsed the songs before recording them to make sure that they would work in a live show. Is that something you did again for this album?
Mark: Yes we did, and even made the process longer because we were vey satisfied with this way of working and the songs really benefit from it, so we thought we’d do it again but even more intense. So we kept working on the songs and vocal lines until everybody was happy and satisfied and every song we thought that this is the best we can get out of it. Then we stop working, because if you continue working once it’s good enough you can actually make it worse again, so it’s always trying to find that top it’s hard but you’re always aiming for that peak.
It must be very hard when you’re making lots of changes to actually keep perspective and see the song as a whole.
Mark: That’s why it’s sometimes good to tour. We had some tour in between, which is a bit awkward because suddenly you’re in a different environment, playing live again and playing old songs, but it has the advantage that when you come back you are fresher and can listen again with a bit of distance.
When you’re recording the album, how long do you each have to record your parts – the vocals for example?
Simone: Well we always make a schedule and I think this time it took me ten days to record the vocals, so we did two songs every day, and we had a little bit of play and we also had to record one day of choir leads, so I had to record the main vocals, here and there also backing vocals, and in the end the choir leads and just singing the choir to colour it a little with my voice, not to be on top of the choir, so for me it was ten day. Each time we record a CD the amount of songs is getting more and the time I get to record is getting shorter. When we recorded The Quantum Enigma, Joost made a schedule and I said that wouldn’t be enough time for me, and he said that no it would work, and he was right. We were working from 10am till 5pm with a break in between and it was super productive, and he was not hammering me to do it again and again and again. As soon as the emotion and intention was good he said lets not focus on every little detail because then you’re going to start singing like a robot. He knew my limits – I had a little bit of a cold so I was coughing, and we had to stop one day to not overstress my vocals. Then we carried on and got it done.
Mark: Three days in total. The first one and a half days I did some songs with Arjen, he did some backing grunts, so the song had a nice lower layer underneath. Then we let it rest a few days, everyone could listen to it, make suggestions, because sometimes you think it’s already pretty cool but someone else has a better idea, and you only hear that once it’s for real recorded because you can’t really judge on a demo, you think it sounds good but you’re not 100% sure, so when it’s on a finished song you can really judge how it works. So then we came back to the studio and re-did some parts that were cooler in a different way, so that was another day, so three days I recorded the grunts.
One bit I found interesting watching the behind the scenes videos you’ve been releasing about the recording process was that with the percussion, rather than having one person record it all, you often had two or three people playing percussion together.
Mark: If you have three people who are not very tight it doesn’t work, but with people who are very tight in their rhythm then it is better to record together because it saves a lot of time.
Simone: Plus it was like an official party where whoever came was welcome to hit the drums and all the percussion instruments.
You record with real instruments, real choirs, real orchestra, and that really does show in the finished music.
Mark: This time we did everything for real. In the past we’ve used samples for brass and woodwinds for example, we already did string sections and the choirs for real, but this time everything was for real. Everything we could imagine, where could we get the instrument, Sitar even, there were all these oriental instruments that people came to the studio playing, really amazing.
It must be a challenge for the recording team with some of these unusual instruments, trying to work out how best to record them.
Mark: The guy who had to mix the stuff, Jacob Hansen, as soon as he received it, he was instantly sick for a week. There were some tracks that had a thousand traces.
I do think the guy who mixed the Retrospect live show had one of the hardest jobs – the band, a choir and an orchestra, so a lot of microphones and feeds to deal with.
Mark: There’s a trick when you do that. There’s one guy who mixes the orchestra and he sends that out as a signal to the front of house mixer, because it’s impossible for one person to mix all that.
Simone: Plus there’s a difference between a live show and a studio recording. With a live show you know it has it charms here or there, so you might hear the flute a little louder. It’s the same with us, little mistakes here or there. That’s live music – you can edit things to perfection but then you beat the soul out of it I guess.
I think that’s the thing with live shows, you don’t expect 100% perfect, maybe 95% perfect.
Mark: Except with an Opeth show, then I expect 100% perfect.
You’ve got an album launch show, and this year it’s part of Epic Metalfest. With it being a festival rather than album launch gig, will you be playing the whole of the new album?
Mark: It’s probably going to be a mix because it’s a festival but it’s also our album launch show, so for sure there’s going to be a vast amount of new songs, but we also want to keep the guys interested who came for the other bands but also want to check out Epica – we want to keep them interested too. Also for the die-ard fans, we notice when we do an album release show and people don’t know the songs yet, it turns into a listening audience. We want the audience to be wild, so for sure we will play the songs that come out before the album comes out, so people know the songs already, and old songs and a few tracks people don’t know yet, so I think you have a perfect mix.
It must be a real challenge to come up with the perfect setlist for each show.
Mark: Oh it is, yes.
Simone: Each record that comes out means dropping other songs that we have in the setlist. We have a skeleton setlist that always starts with the intro and first song of the latest record to be released, then we fill it in with the classics, and the newest record we play most off, but we still include every record in the live show We knows fans appreciate it, its part of Epica’s history and it’s fun to have that kind of time travel during the set as well.
There are quite a few other bands on the bill at Epic Metalfest including MaYaN. Is this going to be the first time MaYaN and Epica have been on the same bill?
Simone: No, there was the Pardiso show.
Mark: The release show of the first MaYaN album, we put the bands together. So it’s the second time. We don’t put the two bands together very often because first of all it’s two sets in the evening for some guys, and second of all, if you’ve been on stage already, it loses a bit of the impact when Epica hits the stage. The crowd is cheering but if they saw some of the guys already it might be different. It would be an obvious choice to put the bands together more often, but we try to keep it a little bit separate.
How much influence do you have over what bands are on the bill for Epic Metalfest?
Simone: We all make our lists plus our management and the booking agencies we work with make lists, and we try to make a good mix of styles, you know not have the same style metal performed all night in order to attract a wider audience and to offer the bands a wider audience as well. Of course we contact bands we like but there’s still the matter of budget, are they on tour or not, stuff like that, and that’s how we get to the final billing we have now.
The last festival was at Klokgebouw in Eindhoven and you’ve moved it this year to 013 in Tilbug, which is where the last album launch shows were.
Mark: Yes, now it comes together. They rebuilt the 013 recently.
Yes it’s much bigger now
Mark: Oh you’ve been already?
Simone: It’s a nice venue
Mark: It’s a nice city, Tilburg. The bands will enjoy being there. The venue has good facilities and I’ve heard good things about the new setup, much bigger, wider, it’s going to be fun.
You’ve also got a second Epic Metalfest this year, in South America. It must be quite exciting having your own festival not only in the Netherlands, but also in Brazil
Mark: Yeah we’re doing everything step by step. The first edition worked well so we decided to do a second one, and with that to do a broader one in Brazil, so if that works well then maybe next time we’ll take another step forward. First we have to see if this is a success then we can see how we can develop it because of course we can also fail and lose money and have to let the dream go, but so far it looks good.
After that you’ve got a tour of North America then early next year you’re touring Europe with around 15 dates in 15 different countries.
Simone: Together with Powerwolf.
Yes that’s a great lineup
Simone: We think so too.
When you have a tour like this with only one UK date, you inevitably get people complaining that you’re not playing a city near them and doing a full UK tour. It must be frustrating seeing those reactions.
Simone: In a way it’s good that people want to see you more, I don’t see it as nagging or anything, but with each record we try to upgrade our production then of course when you concentrate the shows to one or two per country, you’re able to play bigger stages and do the better production, and that way it grows well which will also be an investment in the future – if you do more shows in that country you aren’t going to be playing the big stages where you can realise the production you have in mind.
It’s certainly a trade-off – in the past Nightwish have toured and it’s only last year when they just did one UK date that they were able to bring the full stage show over from Europe. Before that the smaller venues they played just couldn’t take the full stage show.
Mark: That’s it. If we want to do this big production then we have to do it like this with just one show. If we go to the other cities we have this big truck of stuff driving with us and it doesnt fit in the venues then it would be a waste of all the money, so we want to offer the fans a great new show, a big production, and this is the only way we can make it work.
You do see bands on tour 3000 miles from home and there are fans complaining that the nearest show is 30 miles from them.
Mark: I think some fans get a bit lazy. When we play the Netherlands which is a small country, you get people saying “You’re playing the Netherlands but not close to me”. In the Netherlands, everything is close to everybody because it’s such a small country.
On the other hand you get fans travelling a long way from other countries at some shows, especially things like an album launch show.
Simone: A lot of English people come to the Netherlands.
Mark: Hopefully now these Terrorist attacks won’t affect people who travel because I heard already there is less tourism in the Netherlands as well and France and Belgium. So hopefully these kind of things will not have too big an impact.
I think it takes a lot to put metal fans off travelling to gigs.
Mark: Metal fans are quite brave people in general. We don’t let anybody dictate our way of life.
The only way to stop metal fans travelling to a show is to tell them that beer is not allowed at the show.
Mark: (after he stopped laughing) I think our drummer would not come then
Simone: We’d be playing the show without a drummer if beer is not allowed
When you’re not on tour, how do you like to relax?
Simone: Being at home, cooking, cleaning, changing diapers. Spending time in the forest, watching movies…
I’d have thought changing diapers was a good reason to want to go on tour
Simone: No, I don’t mind and it’s almost over – he’s almost potty trained.
Mark: I love to ride my bicycle, that’s my way to relax. Some people ask me when I’m tired after a tour, how can I ride my bicycle, it makes you even more tired, but the truth is after I ride my bike I feel better. Last time we came from Mexico, we flew through the night, arrived in Amsterdam, took the van back to my village which was two an a half hours, and I arrived there, put my luggage away, unloaded the van, and the first thing I did was putting air in the tires and went for a ride for two hours. After that I felt fine. Before I was tired, but afterwards I felt good.
Simone: I couldn’t do that, I admit. From Mexico I flew to Germany through the night and arrived in the morning and for one or two hours I felt really crappy, I took a shower and then started working and stayed awake till the evening. Sometimes you have to go and lie down but sometimes you feel tired, lie down and you feel crappy for the rest of the day. Better to stay busy and sleep at night. All those different time zones take a toll on you. We were only in Mexico for two days so I had jetlag during our stay there and then when I got home I basically didnt feel jetlagged.
Mark: Another thing I like to do is working in the garden…
Simone: You can come and do my balcony then.
Mark: Almost nobody knows that because in the past when I lived with my parents I was never working in the garden, but now that I have my own garden I’m working there every free minute I have.
I suppose it’s like riding a bike, you’re outside in the fresh air and you’re taking your mind off work and everything else.
Mark: Thats it, and I love being in nature, whether its in the garden or on my bike. I always aim for nature, nothing inside the city. On tour we’re always in cities so when I’m back home I’m happy I live in the countryside.
Simone: Me too. I’m not a city person, I like it for a short time but I also need the fresh air, the forest, the cows and sheep, and farms and tractors. My son loves tractors so we’re living in the right spot. He’s three now
Simone: Too fast.
It must be difficult for you leaving him for a few weeks when you go on tour.
Simone: It’s difficult but we also try not to be away from home longer than four weeks, that’s kind of the maximum and we split up the European tours to make them shorter and then we just do two legs in order not to miss too much of the lives of our little ones. Whenever we travel around the world I try to minimise the travel time if I can. Some people like to stay longer in the countries or they travel the day before, but I prefer to travel on the day of the show to be at home as much as I can.
Around the last album launch show you did some acoustic shows in record stores. Are there any plans to do something similar this time?
Simone: Not that I know of but that can still change. We’ve done it in the past and have quite a selection of acoustic songs and more coming probably, so we could do an acoustic show, not just a small record shop acoustic show. In the past I’ve noticed that the technical side isn’t as good as when we do our own live show and it doesnt feel to me like I can do that best that I can, so I would prefer to maybe one day if the rest are up for it, do a professional show, almost unplugged.
Maybe do it as two sets, the first part acoustic and the second part the full electric set.
Simone: Yeah, if people haven’t fallen asleep during the acoustic bit.
That’s when if you notice people dozing off, you switch to the electric part and crank up the volume to wake them up. The Amsterdam in-store show you did last time was great -the swing version of Storm the sorrow was brilliant.
Simone: Some people loved it, some people hated it, but that’s always going to be the case.
Mark: With the acoustic stuff we always do a twist. You can do a one to one copy of the electric version but that’s boring, so when you add something you cannot please everyone but in general people love that we do it so it sounds different.
I think the important thing is that you enjoy doing it. If you’re not enjoying it then it comes across to the audience.
Simone: We have two people in the band, Coen (keyboards) and Isaac (guitars), they’re the goofballs going totally wild. I like singing ballads or having it a little more intimate. As I said before about the technical side, I don’t have an in-ear at those shows, just the PA or a floor monitor and it’s hard for me to perform at my best when I can’t hear myself clearly. Some singers never had the in-ear monitors but I’m one of those modern singers that really needs them.
Thank you both very much for your time